WASHINGTON -- Independent conservative groups are going to have to come to terms with the fact that they spent more than $700 million -- 70 percent of all of the reported independent spending in the 2012 election -- and walked away with little to show for it.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was supported by outside groups that outspent allies of President Barack Obama by $260 million. And yet he still lost.
This ultimately raises the question of whether the much-feared independent spending unleashed by the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling was a dud. After all that money spent by independent groups largely financed by billionaires and millionaires, the government looks almost identical to the way it did before. Obama remains president, the Senate is firmly Democratic and the Republicans control the House.
As it turns out, you can't buy a different electorate, or a better candidate, no matter how much money you throw at it.
From the evidence provided by the past two years of outside spending in the presidential race, you can, however, buy a bit of anarchy, a certain amount of time and a megaphone that only really works when it is joined with a compelling narrative.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, was seen by many as the leading front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination despite a consistent fluctuation of candidates at the top of the polls during late in 2011.
As the Iowa caucuses approached, Romney's seat as the leader of the pack was challenged by a late surge from former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. This seemed to come at an opportune time for the challenger in the weeks prior to the vote. Coming to Romney's aid was a super PAC constructed as an independent arsenal to dispose of his opponents. The group, Restore Our Future, unleashed a withering barrage of attack ads destroying Gingrich's credibility and earning it the nickname, "The Death Star."
This initial experience with the outside groups born from the Citizens United ruling was positive for Romney, but it would quickly turn bad, leaving lasting damage deep into the general election.
Casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson put more than $10 million into a super PAC to support his longtime friend Gingrich. The former Speaker's campaign was woefully underfunded and unable to afford expensive advertising.
At the same time, former Sen. Rick Santorum was driving around Iowa in a station wagon with only enough money to pay for his own gas. Wyoming investor and fellow social conservative Foster Friess came to Santorum's aid by putting money into super PACs to provide him with advertising in the late stages of the Iowa caucus.
The injections of money by these two super-rich donors reanimated the candidacies of both Gingrich and Santorum, two conservative challengers to the once-moderate Romney, and forced an extended primary battle in which Romney ran further and further to the right, creating soundbites for attack ads and reinforcing a narrative central to Obama's critique of his campaign.
During this super PAC-extended primary Romney announced a new, more conservative budget that featured income tax cuts that would eventually become the basis for Obama's attack on the "$5 trillion tax cut" that Romney had no plan to pay for.
He announced that he was "severely conservative" to an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). This remained an Obama attack line even after Romney's moderate makeover in the first presidential debate. "After running for more than a year in which he called himself severely conservative. Mitt Romney is trying to convince you that he was severely kidding," Obama joked.
In appealing to social conservatives who were receptive to Santorum's message, Romney stated in an interview in Missouri, "Planned Parenthood, we're going to get rid of that." This line became a centerpiece of Obama's ad campaign targeting women voters, which, according to exit polls, the president carried by 18 points.
Perhaps most damaging was the introduction by the Adelson-funded Gingrich super PAC of the Bain Capital line of attack against Romney. The super PAC released a mini-movie featuring workers laid off from companies that had been taken over and shut down by Bain Capital, the private equity firm that Romney formerly headed. The movie painted Romney as a vulture capitalist who sent jobs overseas and put working-class people in small-town America out of work.
After securing the nomination in May, Romney entered the general election field with less money than the deep-pocketed Obama, who immediately launched an unbelievable barrage of attack ads to frame Romney as the "severely conservative" character he took on during the extended Republican primary. The president's campaign was joined by a super PAC led by his former aide that gleefully picked up the Bain Capital attacks where the Gingrich group left off.
The most well-known ad run by the pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities USA Action, was titled "Stage" and began with an ad buy in just Ohio. The ad featured a worker describing how he was asked to help build a stage at his factory, which was then used by company owners to announce that the plant was closing and all the workers were fired. The company had been taken over by "Mitt Romney and Bain Capital," the ad said.
"Mitt Romney made over $100 million by shutting down our plant and devastated our lives," Mike Earnest says in the ad. "Turns out that by building that stage I was building my own coffin, and it just made me sick."
Much in the same way the Swift Boat Veterans advertisements targeted both a strength of 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, his military service, and played upon familiar critiques of his personality, that he doesn't tell the truth, the "Stage" ad built upon already existing suspicions of Romney among voters based on his wealth and his lack of disclosure of his tax returns, while targeting his business record.
Without enough money to respond immediately, Romney appeared to be caught in a situation akin to previous Republican presidential candidates Bob Dole, in 1996, and John McCain, in 2008. Both candidates ran low on funds and had to remain off the air during crucial summer months while their better-resourced opponents pounded them.
Here is where super PACs and "dark money" non-profits like the $300 million Crossroads operation founded by Republican political operative Karl Rove came to help the Republican candidate.
On Fox News, after Obama was projected to win reelection, Rove defended the spending from his Crossroads group. "If groups like Crossroads were not active, this race would've been over a long time ago," he said.
Jonathan Collegio, Crossroads spokesman, previously explained that Crossroads was able to help Romney by running tens of millions in ads, some of which were ostensibly non-political "issue ads," during the summer months. "Crossroads relentlessly kept America's attention focused on Obama's failed economic policies and his recovery -- the worst recovery in modern history," he said.
In May and June, these conservative groups were able to cut an Obama advertising advantage that totaled more than four times the advertising of Romney down to 2-1. Later in the race, the Wesleyan Media Project found that Crossroads continued to prop up the advertising for the Republican candidate.
Outside money influenced the trajectory of the presidential race in all of these ways, but campaign finance watchdogs voiced minimal concerns about whether the unlimited money freed by the Citizens United ruling would buy a seat. Instead, their focus is beyond the election -- to the policies that could be affected.
"The biggest impact of this money that is dangerous for our democracy was never going to be on the individual elections that occurred, but on the corruption of government decisions that followed," says Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign finance reform group Democracy 21. "It would be a big mistake to judge whether we have a corrupt campaign finance system today by the outcome of any of these elections. This is just the beginning."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the amount independent conservative groups have spent in the 2012 election.